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My sword teachers raise the sword to above the head, just short of horizontal before beginning a cut. I've noticed that other instructors (e.g. Breeland Sensei, at approx: 1:31, and I will try to find a similar reference to a Saito-Sensei video) drop the sword to a vertical position behind and aligned with the spine prior to starting a cut. I have a few sword manuals that offer similar advice.

What is the advantage to this? Is this purely a training technique or does this offer some advantage in the subsequent cut?

(I believe that this can be answered objectively; my teacher explained why we use the specific position we use, and I'm sure that someone who has trained in Saito-Sensei's lineage could offer a similar explanation, which I would find acceptable.

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Here is a video of Saito Sensei performing bokken suburi. You can see the vertical positioning at ~7:15. –  BenCole May 21 '13 at 3:37

6 Answers 6

up vote 9 down vote accepted

Although I have not practiced aikido, I have some experience in kendo and can tentatively offer an answer.

In the school I was in, we used to practice a multitude of suburi (sword swings). In most of them, the jodan-no-kamae stance is assumed prior to striking. This sounds a lot like the stance your teacher is using. In this stance, your sword is placed in the optimal position for a downward slash, gaining speed and power from gravity as well as angular momentum, while at the same time minimizing your own expenditure of energy. It's basically the most cost-efficient stance for downward cuts.

However, in some suburi, we would send the shinai or bokken all the way back so it becomes, as you mentionned, aligned with the spine. This cutting technique is not meant to be used in an actual fight, as it is much slower. Indeed, "charging up" your cut this way means doubling the distance your sword needs to travel prior to the cut, as well as necessitating a lot more muscle energy on your part to get the sword back up. And that's exactly why it's a good practice swing. It's basically weight training, using the weight of your sword as a resistance while practicing proper swing control at the same time.

The suburi used in kendo and aikido are probably different, but it seems to me that this could be a possible explanation for your observations. Your teacher's preferences may influence his selection of suburi for his class so that you see some more than others but, by themselves, both are proper exercises. They simply have different goals.

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Similarities and differences between suburi in kendo, aikido, aiki-ken and Mugairyu are a fascinating subject, and well worthy of a beer or three. Aikido seems to have kept the curved blade but pretends to use a kendo straight shinai. That said, this answer matches what I see, and I think I'll accept it. Thanks very much. –  Mark C. Wallace Aug 24 '12 at 9:44
    
My pleasure! And thank you for accepting it! –  Dungarth Aug 24 '12 at 13:39

My Aikido instructor has explained that the position you are referring to, if I'm not mistaken, is the most effective position to be in before doing any kind of forward strike with a bokken. It is called Jodan and it is a compromise between having the bokken far behind your head creating an offensive-focused power attack (being more strength oriented), and holding the bokken out in front of your head while in kamae, creating a faster more defence-oriented strike. Having the bokken in between these two opposing positions, creates the most effective strike as it comprises both strength and speed evenly.

What I have discovered myself is that depending on each individual person, this position may be ever so slightly different. I find that it generally tends to be around 45 degrees from straight over your head. Which is consistent with the curve of your back while standing in kamae, creating the correct position to act as an extension of your arms from your pinkys to your shoulders- which of course follows Yoshinkan's "ikkajo shape".

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The kamae you describe with the tip downwards are less likely to injure "friendlies" behind you, as it occupies less space behind you. The tip will be quite unpleasant to run into from behind if the sword is held horizontally :)

This kamae will also be better for fighting in confined spaces (up against a wall etc.) - from a bujinkan point of view.

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In mugai ryu the blade is held slightly above horizontal. The only friendly I have a chance of injuring is someone about 7 feet tall who is already uncomfortably close to me. And the tip has to pass through a 4' circle around my body so it wouldn't be any use in confined spaces. I think your answer is good, but I've failed to draw an adequate word picture. –  Mark C. Wallace Sep 25 '12 at 14:41

I use the bokken touching the spine as an exercise to make sure that the bokken is straight and my hand and arm position is correct. But that is it. Otherwise, I do all the techniques with the bokken never going beyond horizontal. For weight training, I tend to use a suburi bokken or a tire. Although, do make sure there is no bounce as your bokken hits the tire.

But why not try it: do the kumi tachi with both style of cuts and see which one gives the best results.

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I've tried both. <warning; following is subjective> I and my partners agree that we prefer the way that our MuGaiRyu teacher taught us. Dropping to the spine feels slower, breaks the flow/energy, and seems to corrupt the shoulder position. –  Mark C. Wallace Aug 24 '12 at 9:40
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@MarkC.Wallace: Indeed, that is what I found as well and thus why I am not doing it. Also moving the bokken from the spine to vertical is a waste of energy. –  Sardathrion Aug 24 '12 at 9:52

Start with big movement. End with small movement. And keep your elbows in.

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This is largely going to be a matter of training – Since aikido stems from daito-ryu aikijujutsu, which in turn took its aiki from the leverage of sword work, you will see the technique of bringing the sword to parallel with the spine taught often. There's a nice technique from the the hiden mokuroku that counters a rear lapel grab by raising the arms into this same kamae.

What happens is different ryuha have different thoughts on the matter. Moving from parallel to the spine creates a larger arc, with more time to accelerate through the strike. The body, I find, is much more still in these schools, the arms and legs moving without changing the height of the torso.

In other schools, however, you'll see a tendency to either a forward but vertical dai-jodan no kamae, or one in which the sword rests perpendicular to the spine. In these schools, the arc is shorter, the strike is faster, and a distinct sinking of the body initiates and pulls through the sword. This gives nearly equivalent speed for the strike over a shorter period of time.

My attitude on the subject is this: Train both ways. If you perform an action in only one way, you will stagnate and not see the bigger picture. In aikido you're training with the bokken to understand the movement and how it relates to the leverage that aiki requires. Perform a cut with the bokken and then perform that same with an arm and you understand the reason for training both ways.

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Excellent answer. Thank you. (that converges with my approach. Most of the time I practice as my mugairyu teacher taught. But in solo practice I try to alternate, to see what the other stroke will teach me). –  Mark C. Wallace Aug 28 '12 at 16:42

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